The Importance of Bringing Down Your Emotional Walls and Letting Others In
Whoa boy, big topic – buckle up, folks. There is plenty going around about mental health at the moment – for example, the Royals’ recently-launched charity, Heads Together, is aiming to try and decrease the stigma that exists in society about mental health by tackling it head-on and in a high profile manner. They’re right to do so because, make no mistake, there are some serious problems with the way that our country’s society tackles mental health. From the little girl on the council estate whose parents both work to provide for her to the middle-aged businessman with 2.5 kids and the perfect wife, everyone has the capacity (and the right) to feel low, depressed or even suicidal. According to reports from the Office for National Statistics, there have been incremental increases in suicide rates in the UK over the last few years and it isn’t hard to understand why. At least two thirds of these suicides are male and, being male last time I checked, I will be writing this article from a male’s perspective (obviously), though I hope that it resonates with everyone and anyone that wants to read it as I want my message to be relatable regardless of any gender, orientation or belief.
We, as a society, live in a time of cultural and technological change that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s and we simply haven’t yet understood how to come to terms with the new world around us. The assurances our parents gave us when we were younger aren’t relevant anymore; the societal pressures of social media coerce us into being in constant competition with our peers; businesses across the country are still acclimatising to the vast changes that globalisation brings, which breeds uncertainty among their employees. There is so much for your average Joe/Josephine to be concerned about with so much change in the air and yet, for many, the teachings of the previous generation remain gospel despite their apparent dysfunction. The one teaching that I will try to debunk here is a staple of “Britishness” – Keep Calm and Carry On. In more depth, this is the idea that one should not talk about their feelings as it is a sign of weakness and should instead bottle it all up and continue with the status quo. As a proud Brit, it does feel slightly sacrilegious to defy the statement hung on the walls of so many students’ rooms across the country (and the forerunner to so, so many horrendously dire memes), but I have good reason.
After university, I was the poster-boy for Keep Calm and Carry On. I hadn’t got the 2:1 that I had assumed I would and had fallen into recruitment, then media distribution. Both, for the right candidate, were good jobs, but I wasn’t particularly happy with my lot in life and I couldn’t understand why – I was living with friends in London, had good jobs and income and was “living for the weekends”, as so many do. Life should have been good! In comparison to so many, life was good. But some little voice kept chattering away at the back of my mind, niggling at me, telling me that this wasn’t quite right. I wasn’t feeling confident in myself and felt like I was floating adrift, being pulled this way and that by the ebbs and flows of one week feeling awful and drinking too much and the next overcompensating at the gym and switching to Coke Zero from “Regular Coke”. That said, were it not for a massive life event, I would still be in that position today. I kept telling myself how lucky I was to have my life at all and that I should thank my lucky stars to be in such a fortunate position, but then everything changed. In one horrendous month I suddenly lost my Dad to cancer. It hit me incredibly hard and wound up with me seeking out bereavement counselling to help me come to terms with what had happened.
It was the best decision I have ever made. It took me three sessions to start to properly open up as it was so alien to me, but once I did it felt like a massive weight had been lifted. As I had twelve sessions available through the NHS, over the following weeks my counsellor and I broadened the conversation from solely my Dad to how I dealt with other aspects of my life and from something so simple as talking, I came to the conclusion that I would never be happy doing a 9-5 office job. This was a tricky thing to realise when my Dad had been a career businessman who had always thought that just getting started in business was the best direction for a middle-class young man to take after uni, though he only ever told me this through gentle suggestions (“Get off your arse and get a job, Matt.”) and never forced the issue. At the end of the twelfth session, however, I had handed in my notice at work and had figured out a way to incorporate my dad’s memory as a positive, driving force for where I went next and not as something that I would ever feel guilty about.
Truth is, I’m still not sure what I want to do (besides submitting my thoughts for the Twenty Mile Club, of course) – I’m applying for a year’s diploma course in music production, I have an idea for a book floating around in the ether and have a strong social conscience that I need to answer to by doing charity work of some description. At the moment, I live with my mother to look after her following surgery, but once she’s back on her (new and improved, bionic) legs unaided the world is my oyster. It’s exciting, but also terrifying – just because I had such an epiphany doesn’t mean that I am exempt from the trials and tribulations of life. Just last week, while my Mum was recovering in a clinic away from home, I deliberately shut myself off from all of my friends and had a week of feeling low, blue and isolated, as I had done many times during my professional malaise. This time, however, I knew that I had the tools to drag myself out of it again through the self-awareness that the counselling had taught me.
The reason for telling my story isn’t to tell you that I know what you’re going through because I don’t – everyone has their own battles and no-one can ever tell you that “babes, I totally understand” because they can’t. Your demons are your own and are framed in your own life experiences – no-one will ever know exactly what your demons are as well as you do. But people who have suffered do understand the fight against them, which is why I humbly present to you a few thoughts from my personal battles that may apply to you.
Step One: Being honest with yourself, what is the problem?
Are your symptoms the cause or the result of your issue?
Short-term, low-key depression could be brought on by a plethora of reasons. Lack of sleep, drug-induced comedowns or hangovers give short-term feelings of anxiety, depression, solitude and helplessness. If nothing immediately springs to mind as an ongoing issue, a lifestyle change can help to redress the balance and help to clear things up. That being said, lack of sleep, hangovers and drug-induced comedowns are often a symptom of a bigger picture themselves – God knows how many times I drank myself to oblivion to not think about the things I knew that I actually had to sort out, deep down.
Think hard about where you are, where you want to be and how you’re going to get there – if any of those things aren’t what you want, then the short-term symptoms may be a signal that there are wider issues in play.
If you think that this is the case…
Step Two: Start to Open Up
Don’t run before you can walk – begin conversations, but make sure you open up to the right person.
You have a number of options here:
Parents: (Hopefully) Will always be on your side. Unconditional love means always looking out for what’s best for you. May not understand some of the intricacies of your social life and may have slightly rose-tinted or unintentionally out-of-date advice.
Friends: Opening up always helps and brings you closer to your friends, but you may not have that relationship with many of your friends. You may not want your struggles to be common knowledge either.
“Best Friend”: We all have one, and you’d hope that they’d have your back no matter what. They invariably will, but will already be included in your life to such an extent that they wouldn’t be able to give an unbiased answer (unless your BFF is a northerner, in which case bluntness is basically their go-to).
Counsellor: An impartial ear. Won’t know the intricacies of the issues you bring up unless you tell them. From personal experience, this is an absolute godsend, though admittedly they can only help as much as you are permitting to let on.
Psychiatrist: Full-on medical help. Will provide the same counsel as a counsellor but have the ability to prescribe drugs. Only you are able to know how much help you need, but this is the gold standard for sorting yourself out if you are at your wits’ end.
Step Three: Let the Walls Down
By far the hardest of all – whoever it is that you choose to talk to, be prepared to let your guard down. Dependent on your situation and who it is you choose to talk to, you need to make sure that they are trustworthy. If there is even the slightest chance of what you say in confidence ever finding the light of day then reconsider, as anonymity is possibly the most important aspect of opening up. For me, I opened up to my friends when I was ready after achieving my epiphany with a surrogate, impartial ear – opening up too early to the wrong person might result in exposure to the wrong people and an absolute nightmare for you. As I said before, these are your crosses to bear and no others’ – make sure that the one fighting your corner has your back and no-one else’s first. If you are able to wholly put your trust in someone, it helps no end in breaking down the alarm bells in your mind about telling people, which in turn allows you to tell those close to you as and when you deem it right.
The truth is that no matter what situation you’re in, big or small, someone will have felt something similar before. You are not alone in how you feel or what has happened to you, but make no mistake in knowing that your situation is yours alone to resolve. Just know that there are friendly ears out there that have no bias, no agenda and no prejudice, and they really do work. There is no shame in seeking out help.